December 14, 2016

'Envision Athens' Committee Represents Institutions, Not the People


Recently, the steering committee for Envision Athens, an ambitious, year-long community planning process, was selected and presented to the public at the somewhat quietly promoted first meeting for the group. The Envision Athens project is charged with several goals, but one, arguably the most important, is to inform our Comprehensive Plan revision. This is a state-mandated document, renewed every 20 years and designed to guide local decisions on future land use. To illustrate how consequential our Comprehensive Plan can be, a previous revision almost 20 years ago produced the framework for zoning changes that led to our green belt and the high-rise apartments downtown.

I have anticipated this process, hopeful it could be a community-wide forum and broadly discussed, where among other topics there could be an in-depth look at housing in Athens aimed at reconciling conflicts between infill housing, affordability, neighborhood protection and development. Unfortunately, I fear that the composition of the steering committee for this project suffers from a serious flaw. Consequently, the final product of Envision Athens may lack the force of legitimacy and thus public acceptance.

The flaw lies in the fact that fully half of the 38 members of the committee are either representatives from institutional stakeholders or ACC officials. They include the City of Winterville, UGA, Athens Tech, the United Way, the Athens Housing Authority, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, the Clarke County School District, both hospitals and Georgia Power. The problem with these groups forming the core of the committee is they are not true stakeholders. The real stakeholders in Athens-Clarke County are the residents of Athens-Clarke County, people who represent themselves and hold a real and consequential stake in how the next 20 years in Athens unfold. The institutions—with the exception of UGA and Athens Tech, which are state institutions—are here primarily to serve the needs of the Athens community, the true stakeholders, not to guide our future.

Those who remember OneAthens, the late-aughts anti-poverty initiative also known as Partners for a Prosperous Athens, will recognize the similarities: a federation of institutional partners (in that case, ACC, CCSD, UGA, the chamber and the education nonprofit Family Connection) steering significant public involvement; a lot of time invested in an earnest effort to address a legitimate need. OneAthens finally is viewed as a swing and a miss, its effort culminating in a now mostly forgotten result.

This is not intended as a criticism of any of the people involved in Envision Athens. Certainly, anyone who is willing to take time to participate in an effort to consider the benefit of the wider community ought to be thanked for the gift of their time, but I also believe we should be sure time is not wasted by repeating failed formulas of past projects. I also don’t believe that the organizers of Envision Athens intended anything other than to construct a process that will be inclusive of all. Indeed, at the initial meeting, organizers touted the demographic balance of the committee as a whole, and everyone in Athens can be proud of that result. However, that balance seems to hide in plain sight that the committee was initially formed with the perspective that Georgia Power, the hospitals and UGA possess a more legitimate voice within our community than the public, and that policy rightfully should be guided by those institutions.

Athens seems to have a problematic relationship with public involvement in policymaking. Efforts to increase access beyond electing our commissioners and three minutes at the podium at a public meeting are often rejected. Just think back to the recent unusual Mayor and Commission vote on the proposed civil rights committee, which pivoted on utilizing public input in the development of the ordinance. When we do seek public input, it is frequently in a highly structured process where the range of responses is narrowly defined by predetermined questions; the public is placed in a reactionary role.

Though it is only just beginning and recently revealed to the public, Envision Athens and its process seem largely set. The institutions involved have helped to pay for the hired consultant, essentially buying their seat at the table. People will come to meetings to participate and see a steering committee that looks like them, but is not them. It could be that we don’t even understand how to seek or incorporate a meaningful public voice into shaping efforts like Envision Athens, but we need to learn how to do it. We need to take steps, to practice, to show ourselves that effective public involvement solves a great many more problems than it creates, so the next time we need to work through a thorny issue or envision a grand plan, we know how to do it, what it looks like, how durable the results can be when the public holds a stake and has a voice.

I will attend meetings for Envision Athens. I will participate and provide comment whenever I am granted the opportunity, and I encourage anyone who is able to attend to do the same. But I cannot see how Athens will ever overcome the structural problems within our community until we rethink the structure we use to address them.

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